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Monthly Archives: September 2014

80 percent of life is showing up. -Woody Allen

Friday, September 5, 2014.

I stood on a small patch of grass looking out at the water. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in Madison. A light breeze blew in off Lake Monona. The temperature was in the low 70’s. A dozen or so swimmers were entering or exiting the water at the swim start area for Ironman Wisconsin. A dozen or so more swam near the triangular orange and yellow buoys that marked the course. Unlike the way the scene would appear on Sunday morning, the feeling was relaxed, even lazy. The swimmers’ strokes were smooth, regular, metronomic.

One of the swimmers was our daughter Katie. After watching ten Ironman races, she had decided that she wanted to see what swimming in Lake Monona would be like. It was Katie’s first trip back to Madison to watch Ironman Wisconsin since she had gone away to college. Now she was a graduate with an apartment and a job as a management consultant waiting for her in Boston in just a few weeks. Twelve years ago, she was ten and in fifth grade when I ran my first Ironman. Today she was plying the waters by herself, swimming into the distance.

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Katie, Friday afternoon, 2014.

I looked around. It was the same place that I had stood twelve years before. In fact, it was the very place where we took this picture:

21 Warren Dave and Scott in their sexy suits

Practice swim, Friday afternoon, 2002. The police did not show up in time to question our fashion sensibilities.

Warren, Dave Mason and I had taken a practice swim on a similarly nice Friday afternoon in 2002. The little patch of grass at Lake Monona was exactly the same as it had been twelve years before. But so much had changed. Warren had died in May 2014. Dave had not run an Ironman in years and now had a wife and great daughters of his own. Katie had grown up. Aside from the patch of grass, all that was the same seemed to be my inexplicable interest in running yet another Ironman that coming Sunday, my 16th.

Numbers.

When preparing for this Ironman, I had worked hard to remain positive. My numbers weren’t good. Usually, a few weeks before Madison, I would have a breakthrough, a workout during which I would run, ride or swim fast with little conscious effort. This year was different. I struggled to even go fast enough to get my heart rate up. The breakthrough workout never came. I was 36 hours away from the race without the assurance that I was in good condition. I had done everything I thought that I reasonably could. I even made a list. I wrote that I had increased my training time, worked hard on strength exercises, taken up yoga to increase flexibility, taken off my shirt when mowing the lawn to develop a tan for the long day in the sun at Ironman, increased my dietary supplements – my list even included cleaning and lubricating the chain on my bike. Even after compiling (and padding) the list, I had a hard time believing that I would turn in a good Ironman performance. I worried that I would have expended so much time and effort but would ultimately let my family, friends and myself down. I shared my concerns with my family and prepared them for a tepid performance.

While I remained pessimistic, even on that warm Friday afternoon on the shore of Lake Monona, I comforted myself with a thought: I told myself to be open to the possibility that something good would happen. Just show up and see how it goes, I told myself. I had done all of the work. Backing away now was unthinkable. Just show up.

My customary pre-race anxiety had gripped me. I don’t know exactly why, but during the couple of weeks preceding an Ironman, I get really nervous. This peaks during the last couple of days before the race. The nervousness and discomfort were difficult to take and made me wonder if running an Ironman was worth it anymore. Maybe this would be my last Ironman, I thought. Maybe I should just run Sunday, suffer a blah performance and acknowledge that I had reached my “use by” Ironman date.

Saturday, September 6th.

I woke early and rode my bike through the quiet, chilly, dim morning. Local growers were setting up at the farmer’s market on Capitol Square. People dressed in sweatshirts and long pants. Several stands were selling mums. Steam rose from styrofoam coffee cups. A few people in Badger red were walking around ahead of the football game that afternoon. Fall was coming.

I only rode long enough to ensure that my bike worked, then went back to get Katie. We ran the last mile of the course in reverse, then back. I narrated what it felt like to come into the last mile and to ascend the hill toward the capitol and finish line. We grabbed some breakfast and strolled around the farmer’s market. Then I gathered my bike and transition bags and walked them over to the transition area. The mood there was still cheerful, the sun bright and the afternoon air warm. Once I dropped off my bike and bags, there was not much left to do but stay off my feet and feel nervous.

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Sure I can remember my number. Reading it on the bag without my glasses, however….

On Saturday afternoon, Katie and Margy went back and forth to the hotel business center to print something. Finally, Katie said that they couldn’t print what they wanted, so she asked me to read something on her computer. She handed me her laptop. On the screen were scans of handwritten letters from the crew members of her boat during her final rowing season at Bowdoin. The girls wrote to offer me encouragement as I approached my big race of the year. They wanted to reciprocate for all of the support that Margy and I provided them at regattas we had attended on the East Coast and in England. Each of the girls cited something that I had said or done that made a difference for them. This hit me like a ton of bricks. It simply had not occurred to me that what I said or did made any difference for the crew. I was there to cheer because I wanted to be there; I cheered because I felt like cheering. It didn’t occur to me that I was having much impact. Suddenly, I was confronted with the realization that what I had done out of sheer enthusiasm had helped the girls – and even inspired them to try to help me under similar circumstances. Tears rolled down my cheeks as I read each note. I felt awfully lucky that Katie got to spend her senior year with such wonderful friends and lucky that I had met them.

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Sharing a laugh in the rain with the crew of the Gibbons after they had won the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia, May 2014.

Shortly after reading the letters, and drying my eyes, Margy, Katie and I went out so that Katie could take another swim. My sisters, Ann and Lynn, brother-in-law Rick and nephew Adam showed up to watch Katie emerge from the water. It always feels great when my family arrives at an Ironman; talking with them helps me forget the almost overwhelming tension I feel as the race approaches.

Sunday, September 7th.

I woke up (extremely) early on race morning. The streets of Madison were dark except for the traffic lights flashing yellow and the capitol building bathed in bright white light. Racers wore sweats and moved quietly to do final checks on their bikes, put a few items in their transition gear bags and get their bodies marked with their race numbers. Katie walked with me as she had so many times before. I approached a very nice woman and took off my shirt in the cool morning air. (Sounds like a more interesting exchange than it actually was.) She marked “2819” on my upper arms and “56” on my left calf. (2819 made me one of the older competitors and the 56 on my calf proved it. Note that the number on a person’s calf lets racers know whether the person overtaking them  – or who they are overtaking – is in their age group. It helps track the competition.)

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The moment before the nice woman realized that I was probably a member of AARP.

“Do you want me to put it on your wrist, Dad?” Katie asked.

I thought about it for a second and said sure.

Katie borrowed the magic marker from the woman who had applied my race number. On the inside of my left wrist, Katie wrote “WT” as she and the Gibbons crew had done the morning after Warren had died and just before their championship race at the Dad Vail Regatta in Philadelphia.

I pulled my sweatshirt over my head and we walked back to the room. I don’t think that we said much.

My family and I gathered near the swim start at 6:30. We snapped a few photos, exchanged hugs, then Margy, Katie and I walked toward the swim start. I gave each of them goodbye hugs, told them that I loved them and entered the dense crowd of neoprene-clad racers moving ever so slowly toward the swim start. (Yeah, it really does smell like car tires in that crowd.)

I looked up and the sun was rising, painting the sky a beautiful orange. The water was calm, the winds light. The temperature was pleasant and despite a nervousness so intense that I simply can’t describe it, there was also a growing conviction that I was exactly where I wanted to be – where I needed to be.

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In the water waiting for the swim start, I noticed that they didn’t play the songs that I liked anymore. No more “It’s a Beautiful Day” by U2 or “Clocks” by Coldplay. The music had moved on. I remembered that the nice lady marked “56” on my calf.

I don’t remember that much after the cannon sounded. The first 200 or 300 meters of an Ironman swim start are always the same. Random, frothy, arms, legs, got my head up for a breath, someone kicked me, my eye socket hurt, I got pushed underwater, go, go, go. Then things smoothed out. I got a rhythm and the morning settled in. The water temperature felt wonderful and I enjoyed the regularity of my stroke. I “came back into my breath” as they said in yoga. At only one point after the start do I remember the swim becoming unpleasant. A man in a special swim cap designating him as among the top one percent of Ironman triathletes tried to pass me at a turn. He grabbed the back of my thigh and pulled, dunking me so that he could go around. I am not proud of this but I grabbed his thigh and dunked him back. I said something that I am not proud of either but will not repeat that here.

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That’s him in the lower part of the picture grabbing my leg. See? View from the 14th floor of the Hilton Monona Terrace.

The swim went a little better than I expected. The numbers were looking up. I got out of the water and through transition without an issue.

“Head in the boat, Dad. Head in the boat.”

It was Katie. She placed her hands to each side of her face as if creating a horse’s blinders.

“This is all you, Dad. You know this course like the back of your hand.”

Thanks to Steve Jobs and some overworked iPads, once out on the bike course my family let me know that I had come out of the water sixth in my age group. Pretty good. The numbers were looking up.

My bike went fine, though I recall having been passed by three guys in my age group. (Remember the numbers marked on calves?)

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“Head in the boat, Dad.” Katie and my nephew Adam.

Early in the run, my family let me know that I was in eighth.

“Head in the boat, Dad. Nobody knows this course like you do. You own this thing.” More Katie.

Ultimately, my family would see me 41 times during the race. (One short of the family record. NBC Sports was green with envy.) Each and every time they saw me, they offered encouragement and, when they could, they let me know how I was doing relative to the competition. At mile 2 of the run, I passed a guy who had been a close competitor of mine for years. When I next saw Katie, I raised my right hand, extended my thumb and pointed backward.

“Sid’s back there,” I said.

Katie brightened and screamed at the top of her lungs.

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Only 24 miles left to run; free junk food at the finish line.

Sometimes, my family showed me hand signals to indicate my age group place. As the afternoon progressed, they needed only one hand.

“Number four is about a hundred feet ahead,” Margy said. “Get him, but at your pace.”

Sometime later on the second and final lap of the marathon, I saw my sister Ann look up from the iPad and flash three fingers. I nodded.

At mile 22, Katie ran up to me and let me know that I was taking lots of time out of the guy in second but he was ten minutes ahead. I knew that he would need to slow to a walk or stop for me to catch him. I decided that I had to stay steady and not go so hard that I risked blowing up; I could lose third by trying in vain to chase second.

At the 25 mile mark I smiled and began the climb up to Capitol Square. The sun was in its lazy afternoon phase, not yet yellow or orange but not so bright or hot. The shadows lengthened and the air cooled. Crowds lined State Street enjoying a late afternoon beer. I could smell the pizza. I skipped the last water stop; I would have plenty of chance to drink in just a half mile.

I ran up the gentle slope, turned right up the steep portion of Capitol Square, then took another right on the flat section. I could hear the music and the announcer clearly. The course bent left. I picked up speed and saw the crowd lining the barricades, then came into the chute. I could see the finish line. I went harder. I crossed the line, smiled, took a little help getting my walking feet and found my family.

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IMW finish, 2014. My lights were not quite back on yet when this picture was taken.

Then I remembered what it was like to stand in the same place twelve years before.

Scott and Katie at Finish IMW 2002

IMW finish, 2002. The lights would dim considerably after this picture was taken.

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IMW finish, 2014.

Monday, September 8th.

Ironman Wisconsin is a qualifying race for the Ironman World Championship race in Kona, Hawaii. Slots for Kona are distributed to age groups according to the relative number of athletes competing in those age groups; provided, however, that if you win your age group, you qualify for Kona regardless of how many competitors there are in your age group. For instance, the men’s 35-39 age group may have six slots for 300 competitors while a man who was 72 years old had only himself in his age group. Six from 35-39 won slots and the 72-year old man got a slot, too. Ironman Wisconsin offers 50 total slots and is the first qualifying race for the world championship in October 2015. Slots don’t come easily and, as a rule, if you finish within the top two percent of your age group, you go to Kona.

For men 55-59, approximately 100 guys competed. That meant that my age group offered two slots. Sometimes qualifiers turn down their slot. They may have a conflict. Sometimes, qualifiers qualify many times and may simply not want to go to Hawaii again. This year, Ironman required Hawaii qualifiers to show up at the awards ceremony to claim their slot. It was possible that someone may not have known and screwed up their travel plans so as to miss going to the ceremony. So I hoped would be the case with Bruce from Cincinnati or Andre from Poland, the guys who finished in front of me in our age group.

Margy had left for Arizona earlier that morning. Katie and I sat down at the awards ceremony hoping that Andre had messed up. Two guys who looked about my age sat down beside me and began speaking in a foreign language.

“He looks like Grandpa,” I said to Katie. My father-in-law was born in Poland.

Katie squinted and looked at his wrist band to see his race number.

“It’s him,” she whispered.

The announcer called our age group to the side of the stage. Bruce and I exchanged pleasantries before going up to get our trophies. No travel plan fiasco for Bruce.

In the end, Bruce and Andre claimed their Hawaii slots and no mathematical mumbo jumbo allocated another slot to the men age 55-59 – to me. Had I not been to Hawaii in 2012, that would have hurt lots more. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved, loved, loved to have returned to Hawaii but I had my turn. It was great. I hope to go back but Andre and Bruce seemed like nice guys and they beat me fair and square. Even so, if I only had five more miles on the run, I could have caught Bruce….

I did all that I could. I couldn’t have gone faster, not that day. I gave it my best. I showed up and something wonderful did happen. Next year, I’ll just have to show up one more time – and hope that Bruce and Andre have something else going on that day.

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That’s me, second from right. Any questions as to why I am not so hot on the bike?

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The cheerful Ironman bridesmaid.

Epilogue

The day after Ironman Wisconsin is always the first day of fall for me. I feel relaxed and am more aware of the leaves turning from green to yellow, orange, and red. Ironman Wisconsin has become a secular holiday, something on my calendar every year that causes me to reflect, not just on the race but on what has happened in the preceding year and years since I have been racing.

Katie has gone from a wide-eyed ten year-old to an experienced endurance athlete who offered coaching and support that made a material difference for me. Within months, other people my age will pay handsomely for her work as a management consultant. Maybe some year soon, Katie will run an Ironman. Maybe I will be the one saying “head in the boat, Katie.” I feel pretty chipper today, thank you, but I can’t help but wonder how many post-Ironman Mondays will come and go before Katie’s advice to me will cease to be athletic encouragement and instead become the better judgment I need to heed as old age clouds my own. (Katie probably thinks that day arrived about the time that she entered ninth grade.)

Katie and I drove across Wisconsin heading home. We stopped in Osseo because I thought that I wanted a Dairy Queen. I filled up the car while Katie went inside. She came back.

“Dad, they’re playing that song. You know that one that starts with ‘Ladies and gentlemen, as you know we have something special for you here at Birdland this evening, a recording from Blue Note Records.”

It was the jazz-rap group Us3 playing “Cantaloop.” Warren had introduced me to that song twelve years ago in Madison and it had become our essential fire up triathlon song through the years. But the song was recorded in 1993 and it had been years since I had heard it on the radio or any place other than my stereo or iPod. Now here we were in Western Wisconsin at a combined gas station and Dairy Queen. What were the chances that that song, that very song, would be playing at that very moment right there?

I looked at my wrist. The WT written there had faded a bit the day before with the lake water and the suntan lotion and the sweat but it was still there. It was still very much there.

One might be tempted to say that Ironman ends up being all about who shows up – and in my case, the wrong guys showed up, Bruce and Andre. While I hope that those two start to sleep in a lot more or take up golf or both, I am convinced that the right people did show up at Ironman Wisconsin this year. I could never even make it to the start line without the right people and they were there. They always show up for me. Margy absolutely makes this happen. Nobody in the world could offer the support that she does – or get my family onto the course to see me 41 times during the day. Ann, Rick and Adam are steadfast and equally handy with cheering, iPad race tracking, navigating and just plain being people I admire. Lynn makes us laugh and that’s important on a long Ironman day. If it’s not funny, it’s stupid. And sometimes it’s not that funny. I never have to wonder where Lynn is on the course; she’s always there for me.

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The in crowd. Katie, Margy, Ann, Lynn, Rick, and Adam. I am the one in neoprene.

Special thanks to the crew of the Gibbons who are collectively and individually the nicest girls I have ever met. I suggest, however, that if you meet them, don’t accept their offer to race. They concede nothing – to anyone.

For WT. He keeps showing up, even in Western Wisconsin.

For Katie. The sun rises and sets for me wherever you are.

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